Never been to heaven.

Dear friends,

Since I’m back in my hometown today (unfortunately, to attend a funeral), I’m offering an encore presentation of an essay about living in my favorite little town.

I’m feeling nostalgic. And teary, as you might imagine. I think this will perk me up.

With gratitude {for happy memories},

Joan, who’s glad to be home, even for a day

Never been to heaven.

First published May 10, 2009.

I get a strange feeling sometimes that I can’t quite explain.

In an instant, time rolls back 30 years and I’m transported. Wait, that’s not exactly right because 30 years ago I was precisely where I am now. It’s more like time doesn’t exist, the years and miles never intervened, and I am transfixed in a place where I’ve always been.

It’s not quite deja vu, because instead of feeling a compelling sense of familiarity or repeated experience, I feel an odd sense of time standing still. It’s not that I’ve experienced the moment in the past, but more like the moment never passed.

In December 1978, I turned 16. A few months later, my mother and father pooled their savings to buy me a 1968 Mustang with a price tag of $900. With a 289 engine and a three-speed on the floor, my little pea-green, notchback pony was a fast ride. The only problem was it took me months to figure out the clutch. During most of the summer of 1979, I could be seen killing my car on hills, railroad tracks and at stop signs all over Mayberry. My neighbor Steve, who I mention often in this space, was at that time my friend Steve. And after a few weeks of seeing me repeatedly pop the clutch, he nicknamed my car “the Frog.” I didn’t get it at first but then he explained: it’s green and it hops around town.

Like most 16-year-olds with wheels of their own, I spent every spare moment in the Frog, often accompanied by the Js. When gas shot up to 50 cents a gallon, my mother tried to put a moratorium on my excessive driving, but I somehow found a way to drag Main more often than not. And somewhere along the way, I developed a dangerously leaden foot.

One of my friends dated a boy who lived just a few doors north from the home I live in now on Pecan Street. And one evening while cruising in the Frog with the Js, we decided to drive by his house after a Sonic run. For reasons I don’t now recall, I cruised down Pecan at 80 miles an hour. A slight crest in the road just south of the boy’s home sent us airborne. Back then, nobody wore seat-belts, so a split second after our fannies landed back in our seats, our drinks landed on our heads after having splashed off the Frog’s headliner.

Some days when I sit on my porch and watch the lazy traffic roll past Magpie Manor, I try to imagine what I would do if a car full of young girls drove down my street at three times the legal speed. At those moments, I feel alarmingly old.

But sometimes, when I’m driving my current low-slung coupe with its quick clutch and six-speed manual transmission, the strange feeling of time standing still envelops me.

Once it happened on a snowy night while driving home from work. At a stop sign two blocks south of my house, the heel of my sling-back pump caught on the floor mat and I accidentally popped the clutch. With my left hand on the steering wheel and my right hand on the stick-shift, I was suspended in a moment of silence after killing my engine. There was no one else on the street. It was just me, lulled in the moonlit hush of a town taking refuge indoors on a winter night, watching the faint sweep of snowflakes on my windshield. And in that hypnotic moment when I didn’t even breathe, I was not 46 years old with a husband and two kids awaiting my arrival at home. I was 16, and stopped at the intersection between my mother’s home and the 30 years that would carry me to big white house on Pecan Street.

Last week it happened on the long stretch of blacktop that runs north from Tulsa to Mayberry. I was driving home after Fleetwood Mac and it was nearly midnight. I rarely listen to music in the car, but in my post-concert exuberance, I turned on the radio and found it was already tuned to a ‘70s station. The music brought back memories of the many days and nights I burned up that same highway in the Frog, including one late night when curiosity got the best of me and I pressed the accelerator all the way to the floor until my speedometer was pegged.

As that memory flooded my mind, it crowded out my better sense. And inexplicably, an old favorite song — Never been to heaven — came on the radio. I rolled down my window, turned up Three Dog Night, shifted into sixth gear, and pressed the accelerator all the way down to the floor until my speedometer was pegged.

I’ve never been to heaven. But I am living — deliriously and dreamily — in a place called Oklahoma.